Honolulu is Losing Trees When We Need Them More Than Ever. Can New Initiatives Save Us?

If you can only plant one tree, make it an urban one.


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Kapok tree, Foster Botanical Garden. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



Tree shopping for a Kaimukī parklet feels a lot like online dating—there’s a world of possibilities, but very few options you’re willing to commit to. Harpullia comes off as basic—the species already lines Wai‘alae Avenue. Plumeria is out because it attracts whiteflies, which can drop in your food and ruin a romantic moment. True kamani looks like a tree in its photos but is more likely to resemble a popsicle stick in a street planter. Ala he‘e sounds like a winner: It’s tough, drought-resistant, uncommon in urban settings, and—partly what gets Trees for Honolulu’s Future arborist Roxanne Adams excited—is one of the few native trees that produces scented flowers, clusters of delicate white blooms that waft an opulent citrusy fragrance. But “You can’t just say, ‘Gonna use ala he‘e.’ You gotta find one that’s gonna fit the situation,” she says, driving to a Waimānalo nursery to meet her tree. Like other tree experts, she embraces the mantra: “Right tree, right place.” With the right care, trees can outlast every other relationship we have.


But by the most recent count, our city trees are losing ground. A shower tree on Wilhelmina Rise poisoned, a bottlebrush tree at Maunalani Heights cut down, both for obstructing views. Diseased autograph trees removed from Kōkua Market’s parking lot. An old mahogany cut down in Kaimukī for breaking the sidewalk. Lychee and mango trees gone to make way for house expansions and rubbish-free lawns. All told, from 2010 to 2013, Honolulu’s urban tree canopy decreased almost 5%, the equivalent of 270 football fields. These are not swaths of forest being cut down, but mostly tens of thousands of individual trees across Honolulu’s neighborhoods. It is death by 76,600 cuts.


SEE ALSO: See Some of Honolulu’s Exceptional Trees


If a tree falls in a city, someone will likely hear it. And it does more than make a sound—it stresses us out. In a study about five years ago, people were shown pictures of trees that were pruned properly and trees that were not. Improper pruning is “really bad for the trees—when the trees grow back, they don’t grow back as strong because the structure’s been altered,” says Andy Kaufman, a professor and landscape specialist in the department of tropical plant and soil sciences at UH Mānoa, who conducted the study on Honolulu’s tree canopy. He found that what was bad for the tree was also bad for us. In the study, he says pictures of badly pruned trees resulted in negative physiological responses among viewers—their heart rates, brain waves and facial reactions indicated stress.


Kaufman focuses much of his research on the relationships between humans and trees, from how their colors affect us to how to help the roots of tropical trees navigate underground utilities. The latter involved eight years of research into a subject he says has never been studied before. He’s wrapping up that research now. “What I try to do with my resources is help us relearn as humans why nature and trees are so important to us,” he says.


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Heather McMillen, coordinator for Kaulunani, the state’s urban and community forestry program. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


“My God we need these trees so much,”
 says Heather McMillen, coordinator for Kaulunani, the state’s urban and community forestry program. She is quick to list all the reasons we need them, urban trees in particular. As the city grows hotter and storms more severe, trees cool the city, making streets more walkable and lowering our air conditioning bills; they absorb stormwater that would otherwise flow off the concrete, thus keeping our ocean cleaner and reefs healthier; and recharge our groundwater, a source of our drinking water. Those reasons are all well and good, but listing them is a little like reducing a human’s existence to physical characteristics like blood and bone and skin.


Before McMillen’s current post, she worked as a research social scientist for the U.S. Forest Service in its most urban of field stations, New York City. After 9/11, she documented the living memorials that had spread across the city, from a willow tree planted in Coney Island, signifying grief, to smoke trees planted on Staten Island to honor fallen firefighters. A tree at Ground Zero was rescued, rehabilitated and replanted at what is now the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. More than 20 of the survivor tree’s seedlings have been spread across the world, including Paris in memory of those killed and injured in the attacks of November 2015, and Orlando to remember the victims of the nightclub shooting in 2016.


Hearing the stories made her “really understand the power of trees for healing,” and the symbolism imbued in trees, whether of collective resilience or in memory of an individual. She wonders what will happen with COVID, “the plantings to mark time and mark the space and honor the lives of people who passed.”


SEE ALSO: Life of the Tree People: Meet the Arborist, Landscape Designer and Author of “Growing Native Hawaiian Plants”


One of her own favorite trees in Honolulu is a banyan on a Kalihi trail. Some years ago, her young son, tired toward the end of a hike, slipped on a steep section and the “huge banyan tree actually caught him from falling off a cliff,” she says. “So I’m grateful for that tree.”


“There’s a very strong aloha ‘āina and mālama ‘āina movement in Hawai‘i,” McMillen says. “But sometimes people engage in that kind of work in a lo‘i or a forest reserve. What about doing that mālama ‘āina, in the place where you stand, in the place where you sleep, in the place all around you?” She likes to imagine that “instead of a city with trees, we’re a city in a forest.


“Urban nature is really the only nature that most people have access to. I mean, to be quite honest, most of us will never go up to our natural area reserves, right? And so, the nearby nature right outside the places where we live and work and play is so important for our health and well-being.”


If you can only plant one tree, make it an urban one, many urban foresters say.



Big Trees

  • Hawai‘i has 16 National Big Tree Champions, identified as the biggest of their species in the U.S. by the nonprofit American Forests.
  • Kaua‘i’s first champion tree, an ‘Ōhi‘a ‘ai, is 42 feet tall and at a family home.One of the oldest coconut groves is at Moloka‘i’s Kapu-aiwa Coconut Beach Park. King Kamehameha V planted the first trees in the 1860s and the grove is home to the nation’s tallest coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), which is 92 feet tall.


SEE ALSO: The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: Growing Tree Ferns as a Food Crop?


Soon after the 2016 report on urban canopy loss, new tree organizations and initiatives sprouted, like Diamond Head turning from brown to green after fall’s first rains. In 2017, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced an initiative to plant 100,000 trees across O‘ahu by 2025, and in 2018, the city passed a resolution to increase Honolulu’s urban tree canopy from 22% to at least 35% by 2035. What does 35% tree canopy look like? Like Kapi‘olani Community College’s campus, or like Washington, D.C. Getting there will require thousands of tree plantings on private property and especially public property, which includes almost 5,000 acres of park land and 1,200 acres of undeveloped land managed by the city. That, in turn, will require money, which the city doesn’t have a lot of, especially now.


But Honolulu’s Urban Tree Plan, drafted in 2019 by the Department of Parks and Recreation Division of Urban Forestry and the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, acknowledges that “urban tree canopy is the same as the investment in any other public infrastructure.” When it comes to city residents’ safety and health, it’s as important as water, sewage, electricity, roads, stop signs and traffic lights. Unlike other essentials, however, “trees are one of the few pieces of City infrastructure that accrues value over time,” reads the Urban Tree Plan. For every dollar spent on tree care, Honolulu’s trees provide $3 in benefits, from electricity saved to cool buildings to carbon dioxide removal to stormwater runoff management.


Since the 2017 commitment, records show that about 35,000 trees have been planted on O‘ahu, with about 5,400 of those planted by the city. Many of these plantings have been on agriculture and conservation lands—important in their own right, but not urban.


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A sea grape tree more than a hundred years old springs through the roof of Buzz’s Steak House in Kailua. The restaurant, opened in 1961, was built next to the tree, and when Buzz’s expanded, the lānai and roof were constructed around the trunk. “My grandma and auntie Kaleo never considered removing our old wise friend,” says Whitney Pi‘ilani, whose family owns Buzz’s. “It’s a part of our family … and a lifeline and reminder to remain steadfast during these great changes of life.”


Tamara Rigney, owner of the cheerful plant boutique Paiko, founded Treehooo! with a Kaulunani grant. Treehooo! is like a marketing campaign for trees: On its Instagram account, Treehooo! tells stories like that of Buzz’s sea grape tree, as well as a friend’s mango tree that grew from a sapling planted by her grandparents in the 1950s. It now provides shade for her home. Interspersed are tree PSAs: “Trees can significantly lower anxiety” and “Shade trees can lower your AC bills by 30%.” Through radio ads, social media and its website, Treehooo! tells people where they can buy trees, and which arborists to consult and organizations to join, even how to request a street tree through the city’s Division of Urban Forestry (though it’s pretty backlogged at the moment). On walks around neighborhoods, when Rigney spots an amazing tree, she slips a leaflet in the homeowner’s mailbox, asking to share their story.


“We want people to relate to people already living with trees,” she says. “Like: ‘This could be you!’ We want to celebrate the positive of trees and at the same time, raise awareness of the trees we are losing every year. Life could be so much better!”


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Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino



“Why can’t Honolulu be a city in the trees?” asks Dan Dinell, president of Trees for Honolulu’s Future. The organization formed in 2017 to connect nonprofits and arborists, businesses and government to plant trees in urban Honolulu. It aims to “mobilize citizens to take care of their own little part of the whole city,” says Dinell. Like the underground network that trees use to send distress signals or nutrients to each other, Trees for Honolulu’s Future works in concert with many groups. When community organization Envision Kaimukī noted that Kaimukī’s tree canopy coverage was 17%, compared to southern O‘ahu’s average of 22%, Trees for Honolulu’s Future helped organize a Trees for Kaimukī initiative, including training citizen foresters through a Kaulunani program to take inventory of existing trees and map areas where new trees could be planted. During the drought at the end of 2020, a concerned citizen noticed that the milo and kou trees at the base of Diamond Head were suffering. Trees for Honolulu and Smart Trees Pacific, a nonprofit that promotes urban forestry throughout the Pacific, helped mobilize resources and volunteer citizen foresters to truck in water for the stressed trees.


Often, however, Dinell hears grievances against the trees—for cracking the pavement, for dropping branches that can injure people and property, for taking up too much space, for blocking views. “Don’t blame the tree, says Dinell. “The tree is doing what’s totally 100% predictable. Blame the person who planted the tree.”


As McMillen puts it, “Think about that little seedling as a puppy, and you really have to care for it so much in the early years, and then one day, maybe that puppy is gonna turn into a Great Dane and you only live in a studio apartment. Whoa, that’s the wrong dog.”


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Tree Networking

Trees for Honolulu’s Future: treesforhonolulu.org

Treehooo!: treehooo.org

How to become a citizen forester: smarttreespacific.org



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When it comes to city residents’ safety and health, trees are as important as water, sewage, electricity, roads, stop signs and traffic lights.  


Which all goes back to the right tree, right place, and Roxanne Adams at a Waimānalo nursery, searching for ala he‘e for the Kaimukī parklet. It’s hard to think of a more inhospitable place for a tree than in a planter box in a parking stall fronting Bean About Town and Super Pho, about 2 feet from buses and cars whizzing down Wai‘alae Avenue. Better Block Hawai‘i conceived of the parklet, meant to be the first of three in Kaimukī; Re-use Hawai‘i built it; Trees for Honolulu’s Future will buy and install three trees; Hapa Landscaping, on the same block, will care for it. It’s all a huge experiment for urban trees, but in the time of a pandemic, when businesses are looking for more outdoor options, it’s a rare opportunity to show people what urban trees can do.


Adams has cared for plants since she was 15 or 16, working the pineapple fields. Today, she’s the arborist for UH Mānoa, caring for trees like the baobab that the art building is literally constructed around. She loves baobabs, in particular the one at Kamehameha Schools—when she attended, she’d use the tree to tie netting, and the baobab always reminded her of The Little Prince.


SEE ALSO: Life of the Tree People: Meet the President of the Aloha Arborist Association and System Arborist with Hawaiian Electric Co.


“We already know in heavily treed neighborhoods, people are healthier and happier,” she says. Research shows that there’s even less domestic violence and crime in housing projects surrounded by trees and other greenery. This is attributed to trees reducing mental fatigue and helping people relax, while also bringing people together outdoors. “So why is it that in the poorer neighborhoods, there are less trees, when they probably need the trees the most and have less opportunities to get trees than Lanikai, Kāhala, Hawai‘i Kai?” Currently, there’s a focus on Kaimukī, where the residents have organized themselves to demand more trees. “It’s easier to work where people want trees. But that’s why I’m involved with Trees for Honolulu. Do people in those other areas even want trees? I don’t know what the solution is.”


At Akamai Landscape Nursery, Adams considers a Podocarpus neriifolius, with its thin bamboolike leaves that could provide an attractive screen between people eating their pho and the traffic on Wai‘alae. There’s room for three trees in the parklet, so she suggests trying three different species to see which does best in the environment. But she keeps turning back to the row of ala he‘e, picking out a full tree, its branches spread out elegantly. It lives up to its other name, the Hawaiian Christmas tree, the way the branches form a symmetrical, almost conical shape. She picks another one, this one a little more wild, a little more clustered. She passes some scraggly ones, looking for a third, when she spots a lignum vitae.


“Oh, I love lignum vitae,” she says. “It grows slow, it looks like a tree, it behaves like a tree, it stays small. And it gets a tree shape. It has purple flowers with yellow seeds. It’s just pretty. You sit by it and you feel like you’re by a tree,” as opposed to a shrub, say, or hedge. Its wood, hard and dense, was once used for ship clocks and compasses. Merlin’s wand was shaped from lignum vitae in The Once and Future King. And so it’s decided. A few days later, the trees are placed in the parklet: the two ala he‘e on the ends, flanking the lignum vitae, used for keeping time, for pointing us in the right direction, for magic. It is, after all, a lignum vitae, or tree of life.